Historical accounts of late 19th- and early 20th-century women in astronomy and astrophysics often focus on human computers, who performed tedious calculations to reduce the large amounts of data from positional observations, photographs, or spectrograms produced by men. Yet the stories of women at Yerkes Observatory challenge that traditional narrative.
New research on the history of the Williams Bay, Wisconsin, observatory has revealed that the women who worked there in the early 1900s were not, in fact, only or always computers. Many participated fully in the work of the observatory as graduate students, visiting researchers, or volunteer assistants. They observed with the telescopes, took photographs, collaborated with their male colleagues, wrote publications, and conducted independent research. Despite their accomplishments, they are little known today, even among astronomers and historians. You can learn more about some of those women in my article “They were astronomers” in Physics Today’s November 2023 issue.
The photos in this gallery supplement the article with additional information about those astronomers and their work.
Kristine Palmieri is a postdoctoral researcher at the rank of instructor with the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago. She is a cocurator of the exhibit Capturing the Stars: The Untold History of Women at Yerkes Observatory, which will be on display at the University of Chicago Library until 15 December 2023.